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John’s Horror Corner: The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Wes Craven’s cannibal cult classic.

November 18, 2018

MY CALL: More historically interesting (regarding its impact on the genre) than scary, this classic simply feels dated, a tad hokey and less engaging than I’d prefer. But I still recognize its importance. MOVIES LIKE The Hills Have Eyes: I’d stay really close to home if you liked this movie. Go with movies like Just Before Dawn (1981), The Hills Have Eyes 2 (1984), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007), the Wrong Turn franchise (2003-2014) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise (1974-2000s).

From the opening silhouetted shots of the southwestern desert mountains, the score immediately transports us to a place of general unease as we are introduced to a part of the country where busted car parts pass as landscape architecture. Just passing through, a well-to-do family on their way to California encounters some gnarly-toothed, cannibalistic locals at a beat-up gas station (a harbinger trope honored 35 years later in The Cabin in the Woods) and must survive their ongoing attacks when their RV breaks down in the desert mountains near an old nuclear testing site.

Our inbred mutant cannibals have assumed the names of Roman Gods, with the father appropriating the title of Jupiter. They speak like simpletons and wear bone jewelry like cave men and witch doctors (it’s sort of hokey), but they’re surprisingly organized when it comes to hunting passerby tourists.

Written and directed by Wes Craven (Scream, Cursed, Deadly Friend, Deadly Blessing), this film lacks the modern luxuries of manicured editing or the budget for buckets of gore and guts. Honestly, I find it on the verge of boring in terms of horror. But you know what? I also find it interesting in terms of horror history! To be fair this is a low budget classic from the 70s, so the gore is limited and the shock value of the film (e.g., the immolation scene) will likely not phase today’s horror fans reared on Hellraiser and Saw films. The gore is limited to a gutted dog and a brutal ankle injury (from a dog attack). The power of this film falls more in the hands of the surviving victims’ desperation.

The cast, particularly our traveling family, does well in the emotionally challenging scenes. Watch out for Dee Wallace (The Howling, The Lords of Salem, Critters) as the oldest daughter.  As Pluto, Michael Berryman (Weird Science, Deadly Blessing) is awkwardly off-putting and convincingly presents himself as a barbaric simpleton. He was the most believable of the miscreant mountain family.

Now I love the classics. But the dialogue between the cannibals was just too hokey and over-explained to be considered “good” by today’s (or my) writing standards. A lot of people praise the Golden Idol originals over the remakes, but I feel the remakes have their important place to younger generations growing up with more dire horror under their belts. To be perfectly honest, I favor the 2006-2007 remakes for this particular franchise as I view this dated horror much as I do Suspiria (1977) or the original Halloween (1978). My enjoyment in these films (and, yes, I do enjoy them despite my criticism) is seeing how tropes were utilized back then, before themes were yet overused; their early iterations that inspired the films to come and the concepts that would be copied, honored, or ripped off by their successors. So, for me, watching such classics feels like taking a horror film appreciation class. And, even if a bit boring, I appreciate it for that.

Even if contemporary standards of executions are not met, many of the concepts are brutal. For example, crucifying Big Bob and lighting him on fire, gutting Beauty, implications of rape, and shooting the mother and grandmother in the gut without warning. This poor family is brutalized with no mercy afforded to the women (or, more accurately, the mothers).

The film ends very abruptly after son-in-law kills Mars, leaving several of both families still alive and unaccounted. Somewhat bleak, and leaving room wide open for the 1984 sequel to pick up.

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